ASCF Report | 6.9.14
By Alan W. Dowd

President Obama, as is proven after every major speech he delivers, is a Rorschach inkblot: Some see the silhouette of a leader worthy of placement on Mount Rushmore. To them, he can say or do no wrong. Those who are not so captivated by his words see a different image and hear a different message. Consider the president’s addressto the graduating cadets at West Point.

First, there’s the president’s style—how his speechwriters craft his speeches, how he delivers them, how he makes his case. Put simply, he often sounds more like a professor than a commander-in-chief. It’s something his supporters love, and it’s something his critics have always hoped he would grow out of. After five years and four months, that’s not going to happen. The president’s style is the president’s style.  Hence, the president makes his case with an army of straw-men:

·         “We should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war,” he says of Syria. Who has proposed such an approach? Even the interventionists have advocated nothing more than arming the rebels and striking Assad’s forces by air—an approach that worked in ending ethno-sectarian wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya.

·         “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.” Again, who has proposed such a strategy? Perhaps the only thing more naïve and unsustainable than invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is withdrawing from countries that need our help in fighting terrorist networks.

·         “Military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance.” Advocates of a strong defense and a forward-leaning America agree, and believe in peace through strength precisely because they know that a strong, engaged America makes military action less likely.

·         “We should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.” When did America last “go it alone”? Media—and White House—mantras notwithstanding, it wasn’t during the demonized Bush administration. In all, 38 countries sent troops to Iraq. To be sure, the U.S. represented the lion’s share (86 percent) of the coalition in Iraq. But that’s less than the U.S. share (88 percent) of the force that fought in Korea.

·         Quoting President Eisenhower, the president admonishes the cadets, “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.” Who has sought the deliberate provocation of war, except our enemies? That list of enemies must include Saddam Hussein, who invited U.S. intervention by playing chicken with three successive U.S. administrations, gaming the UN, pretending to have WMDs for the sake of internal deterrence and making common cause with terror groups. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not connected to al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, but Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was connected to al Qaeda’s Abu Musab Zarqawi, the bin Laden lieutenant who ignited Iraq’s postwar war. As Tony Blairrevealed in his memoir, Zarqawi traveled to Iraq in 2002, met “senior Iraqis” and established a presence in Iraq long before the U.S.-led invasion. What Saddam Hussein failed to grasp in such risky dealings was that 9/11 had changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. Every American citizen—whether for or against the war—recognized this. For evidence, recall that 77 senators voted to take down Saddam’s regime.

Like a professor, the president speaks in detached terms, almost as if he is a well-informed bystander rather than the leader of the Free World, authorized to wield enormous amounts of political, economic and military power: He congratulates the way his administration “brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine” and “helped isolate Russia right away” but does little to bolster Ukraine and nothing to punish Putin. He reports, “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe,” but he does little to reassure those capitals. He explains, “There are no easy answers, no military solution” in Syria but acts as if 36 months of speeches demanding that “Assad must go” suffice.

Like a professor, the president lards his policy initiatives with qualifiers and caveats—thus diminishing those very initiatives. Take Afghanistan, where he vowed to pursue “our vital national interest” by deploying extra troops—and then promptly put a deadline on how long those troops would stay. Or take Libya, where he vowed to help our NATO allies “protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre”—before his spokesmen downplayed the operation as a “time-limited, scope-limited” sideshow. Worse, when the White House grudgingly agreed to continue U.S. air operations after an urgent appeal from the allies, a NATO official emphasized that the extension of U.S. airpower “expires on Monday”—a bruising metaphor for American leadership.

Turning from style to content, the West Point speech seemed smallish, which is to say, tactical, un-strategic, the opposite of sweeping. This is to be expected from a president who prides himself in hitting singles. But when the White House promises a major policy pronouncement, when the president says he will offer a “vision for how the United States of America and our military should lead,” it’s fair to expect more than a varnished recap of the previous five years.

The defense that the president is merely reflecting the world-weariness of an inward-looking electorate may be accurate, but that doesn’t make it right. Leadership, especially in the realm of foreign policy and national security, is more often than not about setting a direction and a destination—and then convincing, persuading, cajoling the American people to follow. Think about Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle to preserve the Union into a struggle to abolish slavery; FDR walking the American people from isolation to arming Great Britain to total war for total victory; Truman making the case for global containment; Reagan reviving the nation’s flagging commitment to what Truman began, pressing America’s economic-technological-military advantage and demanding that Gorbachev tear down the Iron Curtain; Bush 41 making the case for continued U.S. engagement in post-Cold War Europe, and building political support at home and abroad for Desert Storm.

That’s what leadership looks like in the realm of national defense and foreign policy.

The president says, “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.” True. But it’s difficult to recruit and retain partners when the president fails to follow through on threats (see the erased “red line” in Syria), or focuses on “nation-building at home” (see the avoidable disaster in Iraqand the worries in Afghanistan), reneges on commitments (see the reversal on missile defense in Eastern Europe), shrugs his shoulders at naked aggression (see Russia’s annexation of Crimea) or sends a bill to allies in need (see French counterterrorism operations in Mali).

The president wants to launch a new counterterrorism fund to “train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” Sadly, most front-line states are not up to the task. The Philippines has smothered a jihadist insurgency but only with lots of help from U.S. Special Operations assets. Pakistan, at the other end of the spectrum, was unaware that the most wanted terrorist on earth was hiding in plain sight, or was actively hiding him, or is so dysfunctional that its army and intelligence service are fighting on opposite sides.

“In the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option,” the president declaims. “We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders.” He then cites a litany of global crises and hotspots—“Syrian brutality,” “Russian provocations,” “regional aggression” in the South China Sea, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria. He has not ignored these, but neither has he responded to any of them, making him an isolationist by default. At least previous presidents had the excuse of ignorance (we simply didn’t know what was happening on the other side of the world in the 1800s) or powerlessness (America had few muscles to flex before the 1900s).

Speaking of flexing muscles, the president had the temerity to say, “We cannot hesitate to protect our people.” Yet that’s what happened when Americans came under attack in Benghazi.

“Because of American diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices of our military, more people live under elected governments today than at any time in human history,” the president told the men and women of West Point—the long gray line that serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. Set against the backdrop of the rest of the speech—and the past five years—it’s difficult to conclude anything other than that the military was added as something of an afterthought.

In fact, the U.S. Armed Forces are the main reason the zone of free governments and free markets has expanded the past hundred years. Normandy and Europe weren’t liberated by foreign assistance. Tojo and Hitler weren’t defeated by diplomats. West Berlin wasn’t sustained by State Department communiques. The West wasn’t protected from Stalin by ambassadors. Korea, Kuwait and Kosovo weren’t freed by the Agency for International Development. Afghanistan and Iraq were not liberated by loan guarantees or grain shipments. It wasn’t foreign aid that sent Zarqawi and bin Laden to wherever mass-murderers go when they die. The Horn of Africa and Hormuz, the Sinai and South China Sea, are not kept open by international conferences.

There is nothing wrong with applauding peacemakers, diplomats and foreign aid programs. All promote American interests. But there is something fundamentally wrong with putting diplomacy and foreign aid on par with the courage demanded by deterrence or by combat. The president seems to forget that those Americans who “won the peace”—a phrase he likes to use—first defeated our enemies:

·         Before Truman and Marshall conceived a plan to rebuild Western Europe and prevent Europe from sliding back into war or tyranny, the latter commanded the U.S. Armed Forces and the former vanquished two appalling regimes and mapped out the global containment of another.

·         Before he shepherded Germany back into the family of nations, before he presided over a partnership enfolding the Americas and Europe, Eisenhower led an army of armies into the heart of Germany.

·         Before Reagan called Gorbachev a “friend,” he revitalized America’s deterrent strength, launched proxy wars against Gorbachev’s empire, waged economic warfare against the Soviet state and won the Cold War.

To extend the president’s baseball metaphor, his foreign policy looks like a wasted at-bat—at least relative to the titans who launched and steered the American Century. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, the fact that the president is outlining his vision “for how the United States of America and our military should lead” five-and-a-half years into his administration tells us all we need to know about his interest in foreign policy and national security.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.